Our Queer Ancestors: Das Institut Für Sexualwissenschaft


Hey so it’s October and October is traditionally the perfect time of year for getting sad about the past, so this is a thing I’m doing.  Expect lots and lots of posts in this series.

(CW: Mentions of Nazis and Nazi violence)


Das Institut Für Sexualwissenschaft was founded in Berlin in 1919 by Magnus Hirschfeld and Arthur Kronfeld. From their headquarters in Berlin’s Tiergarten, the Institut conducted and published research on sexuality, reproduction, and gender, and what they did was truly revolutionary:  They used science and rationality to lobby for reproductive health, gender equality, and queer civil rights, from 1919 until its destruction in 1933. The Institut employed transgender staff, operated on a sliding scale, offered free treatment to those unable to pay, and by 1930 was performing gender-affirming surgeries. Hirschfeld himself is credited with first coining the term “transsexual,” advocated strongly for the existence and autonomy of transgender children, and promoted literature describing the existence of more than two genders.


In 1933, though, it all came to an end. In late February of that year, following the Reichstag fire and the rise of the Nazi Party, state and paramilitary forces began systematic purges of all facets of Berlin’s queer movement. In May, the ultranationalist Deutsche Studentenschaft stormed the Institut’s Tiergarten headquarters, seized its libraries and archives, piled them in Berlin’s Opernplatz, and burned them.

And this is at once the most iconic and most forgotten part of the Nazis’ destruction of German culture:  The most widely recognized photographs of Nazi book-burnings, the pictures that fill the first page on Google Images, are all from the Opernplatz burnings of Institut documents, a decade and a half of feminist, sex-positive, trans-inclusive scientific and cultural research and literature.


But that wasn’t the end of it. The Nazis destroyed the research, but kept the patient registries. The Deutsche Studentenschaft set up the ransacked Institut headquarters as their own base of operations, to spread the names and addresses of queer Berliners. Many, many of them disappeared into the camps during the war, never to be heard from again. In the 1950s, the executors of Hirschfeld’s will were unable to recover any of his assets because the new West German government declared that the Deutsche Studentenschaft’s actions were legal. The erasure was so complete that it would take decades for the queer community to be recognized as victims of the Holocaust.

Today, the story of the Institut Für Sexualwissenschaft, what it was, what it did, and what we lost, isn’t very widely known. People can spend a lifetime studying the Second World War, see pictures of the Opernplatz burnings a thousand times, and never really know what they’re looking at. But this is a part of our history, an important part, and before the end it was a beautiful part–a vibrant, trans-inclusive queer movement, three decades before Stonewall. It’s up to us to keep that memory alive; remember what we had; never forget what we’ve lost.